A collaborative blog for Current Affairs and Policy Debate

Posts Tagged ‘Public services’

Boris and the BBC

In Home Affairs, The Media on May 14, 2012 at 8:19 pm

By polarii for The Daily Soapbox –@polar_ii

Boris Johnson, now that he has safely returned to the Mayoralty, launched a devastating attack this morning on the BBC. Read it here. “It’s statist, defeatist, leftist,” splutters Johnson from the top of that red Curly Wurly in London, the ArcelorMittalOrbit (see picture).

Boris was more impressed with a giant red Curly Wurly than the BBC

Boris goes so far to suggest that a free-market loving, Eurosceptic Tory be given the reins. Well, aside from the fact that the BBC is already run by a Tory, Chris Patten, this won’t actually change anything. The BBC has a culture produced by its secure bastion of public funding, its privileged position in the media market and the sort of people that work for it.

You see, the BBC is run from the public purse by way of the license fee. The £145 or so everyone who has a TV pays to watch a TV. The BBC therefore has a guaranteed source of income. It also has editorial independence, so it can be as bold as it likes when it produces programmes. Where Boris sees impracticalities in the BBC Arts Editor’s response that the Curly Wurly ought to be ‘taller’ and ‘free’, the BBC clings to this noble ideal that tall things can really be both tall and free at the same time; that programmes can be state of the art and hard hitting while being ‘free’ for the taxpayer.

But of course, the BBC isn’t free. We all know that. We’ve even said that already. It costs everyone £145 per year to fund the BBC. That funding is ring-fenced. It’s a reassuringly large and certain stream of income, one that other competitors in the media market don’t have. Where everyone else has to rely on advertising revenue, which is awarded in proportion to viewing figures, the BBC can afford to produce niche programmes like See Hear that would never be viable in the big wide world of the market.

And don’t get me wrong, it’s really good that we have a public service broadcaster that produces programmes like See Hear. Programmes which inform and challenge and provide a genuine public service. But much of what the BBC does not provide a public service that the market does not already provide. Whilst I’m sure fans of both series will disagree vehemently, Eastenders and Coronation Street are pretty much the same thing. Sky News does pretty much what BBC News 24 does. Heart and BBC Radio 1 are pretty much indistinguishable.

This creates a problem. The stability of the BBC in the market makes it difficult for non-BBC competitors to break into the market. Take current affairs radio. BBC Radio 4 and Radio 5 Live have pretty much cornered that market. Iain Dale makes a valiant effort on LBC. But that doesn’t serve outside London. The status of programmes like Question Time (BBC 1), the Andrew Marr show (BBC 1) and Newsnight (BBC 2) (not to mention the Daily Politics, This Week &c) mean that anyone with any serious interest in public affairs is glued to various BBC outlets for much of their waking life. Tim Montgomerie has done more research than I can comfortably conceive to show that the BBC enjoys an effective monopoly on Radio, TV and online coverage. Put aside the argument that the BBC exhibits biases for one moment. If this sort of monopoly was held by a private sector news agency, even one that had neutrality written into its memoranda and articles, regulators would be profoundly unhappy with it.

Now, I don’t particularly want to wade into the debate about BBC bias. I think Boris is quite close to the truth when he says that the BBC’s public funding creates a culture which favours left-liberal ideas. Andrew Marr has further noted that, since the BBC hires a disproportionate number of LGBT people, people from ethnic minority backgrounds and young people, the ethos of the BBC will be unconsciously skewed towards left-liberal views. Jeff Randall, its former business editor has made similar remarks. As has Antony Jay (£), writer of Yes Minister. As has Rod Liddle, former editor of Radio 4’s Today Programme. As has Peter Sissons, former news anchor. People criticise the BBC for being too right-wing, such as MediaLens, though these voices are much quieter and by far in the minority. But the flow of criticism that the BBC is biased against centre-right views is sustained enough and vocal enough to have undermined trust in the Corporation.

But Boris’ solution is wrong. The solution is not to appoint a Tory. Firstly, because that’s already been attempted several times, and hasn’t got very far, but, more importantly, because it overtly politicises an institution that is, at worst, only subconsciously politicised, and ought to be neutral.

So here are three solutions. The first is to make the BBC subject to media regulators and competition law. The thought behind this is that the effective monopolies the BBC has on radio particularly, but to a lesser extent TV and online, are squeezing out other players in the market. The more players there are in this market, the broader the range of views and sources available; the more people will be able to vary their viewing. In a well-functioning market, competition also acts as a spur for all competitors to do better, improving the overall quality of, in this case, broadcasting.

Second, offer programmes which are a public service, but too niche to survive in the market, such as perhaps ‘See Hear’ or ‘From Our Own Correspondent’ to the wider market. If the BBC can make a programme for deaf people, so can Sky or C4. They might even be better at it. Contracts could be tendered for a year and sold to the broadcaster with the best proposals for using a designated funding grant from government. The government should also ensure that they go out on terrestrial channels (or when the digital switchover is complete, Freeview channels), since the public service element shouldn’t require additional payment above and beyond existing taxes.

Which leads me on to my third, most radical idea. Abolish the license fee and find the money by a rise in income tax. Why should we do this? Firstly, it is an effective tax cut of £145 for anyone who doesn’t earn enough to pay income tax; the very poorest in our society. Secondly, it removes the injustice of what is essentially a poll tax, paid with no regard to people’s income. Thirdly, some people make perfectly valid complaints about how they’re paying the license fee to watch ITV or C4 and never watch the BBC, yet still have to pay to fund the BBC. Why should access to ITV and C4 be contingent on paying for the BBC? Access to the BBC is certainly not contingent on paying for ITV. Either the license fee should be distributed around all the terrestrial channels, or there should be no license fee.

One other advantage of moving the BBC from the license fee to general taxation is that it will appear on the government’s wonderful new tax returns, which show where the tax is going and in what proportion. The BBC had a budget of £3bn last year. It’s trivial compared to welfare at just shy of £200bn. But allowing people to see how much the BBC costs them relative to say, healthcare or education might make them question if they really value it. It might make the people who want to see the BBC fully privatised decide that it’s really not that much money to pay for no adverts on TV, Radio and Online, with generally good content. It might even make the BBC staff realise that big and brilliant things can’t really be had for free.

So there’s the manifesto for the BBC. Competition and regulation, individual public service broadcast contracts and the abolition of the license fee. The BBC still has its funding and the independence to make brilliant programmes (above and beyond the programmes the government directly commissions). But this way, it’s fairer, clearer, and allows for much greater media plurality. Even Boris can’t be against that.

We need a revolution in the culture of active governement

In Home Affairs, Ideology on October 8, 2009 at 10:53 pm


My politics teacher from my green-eyed days of school (yeah, right) used to characterise extreme liberals and extreme conservatives thus: “The former have no concept of individual responsibility, the latter have none of social responsibility”. Though there is doubtlessly more to political analysis than this, it is a good starting point, and sums up one of the critical problems with the level of political debate in this country.

The Conservatives, over their 18 year period of rule from 1979-1997, helped transform the debate over public spending drastically. Their economic policies moulded society into one which far more readily asked the price-tag of a policy, to the effect that the incoming Labour government of 1997 was forced to accept the neo-liberal consensus regarding tax and spend, fostering a relatively low-tax (for the wealthy, certainly) economy and funding spending programmes through other means (such as, for example, allegedly miraculous economic growth).

It not only makes sense for the State to influence the choices we make that affect public spending, it can be socially desirable that it does.

However, whilst the Conservatives were doubtlessly successful in forging a strong link in consideration of public spending and economic cost, they were just as undoubtedly unsuccessful when it came to creating a similar link between social policy and social responsibility, perhaps partly because the concept of social responsibility (that is, the real meaning of the word, rather than generic political rhetoric about social morality) did not feature highly in the ideology of Thatcherism. But simply having a society where we always think of financial cost before considering policy is not enough: to be healthy a society must also think of what we should be contributing societally in return. And this is an idea which is all too missing in our culture today, where people appear to take the view all too readily that the only cost to themselves should be from their wallet, rather than their behaviour.

This is a profoundly damaging point of view, because it ignores the whole rationale for the existance of public services to begin with. Firstly, public services exist to tackle social problems. So social behaviour matters, as it is part of the very reason for services to exist in the first place. Therefore there will inevitably be a direct link between social behaviour and taxation used to fund these services in the first place, meaning that it is logically inconsistent to attach a purely financial cost to the funding public services.

Secondly, people fund public services unequally when it comes to what they consume from them (a rather obvious point, as that’s the whole point of the service being public, the fact that a dichotomy exists between ability to pay and need to use). Therefore their social behaviour may be increasing the cost to another to a disproportionate extent.

Thirdly, there are many factors beyond our control that cause the need for public spending. Therefore it makes sense to minimise the amount of unnecessary spending, caused by factors that are within our control.

Fourthly, there are widespread economic reasons behind the existence of social problems to begin with, but given the nature of the economy (a relatively free-market base) our social behaviour has an impact upon this, an effect probably more transformative and certainly less prone to side-effects than direct governmental, top-down, intervention.

Therefore the concept of social responsibility coming with social provision is an extremely essential one that is all too often overlooked. It not only makes sense for the State to influence the choices we make that affect public spending, it can potentially be socially desirable that it does.

A practical example would be healthcare spending, particularly at a time when rising healthcare costs are part of a big worry at the heart of all healthcare systems. Given the price-tag that comes with improvements to medical opportunities, it makes sense to economise on the avoidable drains on the public purse in order to deliver the best possible opportunity to those who suffer from unavoidable social ills. Definining the latter and distinguishing it from the former is no doubt an incredibly tricky, painful process, which will incur disagreement from all sides of the spectrum. But equally there are obvious cases, such as obesity, smoking-related and alcohol-related illnesses.

And by all of this I do not mean an attack on the most socially disadvantaged. I do not mean forcing people suffering from these illnesses to pay out of their own purse. Nor do I just mean increased tax to deter people from pursuing these practices, though that should form a part. Rather I mean the government taking a proactive step toward encouraging healthy social outcomes, including the subsidising of healthy food, attempts to drastically improve the education of society about living healthily, and using the tax system smartly in such a way to turn cheap, unhealthy comfort food into mini-luxuries, and encourage the promotion of more natural and healthy alternatives.

For too long, people have regarded State intrusion into everyday life as by definition “illiberal” “Nanny state” and anti-privacy. In reality, though there are undeniably many areas where the State is all of these things, there are also many areas where it needs to take more of an active line, if only in the interests of reducing the need for intervention in the future. And just possibly, if we start to have this debate on more mature terms in the future, we might be better able to prioritise between the unnecessary, reactionary intrusion; and the healthy, socially beneficial intervention. It should be self-evident that where the society needs to help people, people should be thinking of how they can improve society. Or to paraphrase Kennedy: “ask not just what your country can do for youask also what you can do for your country.